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“The future of man is not here… It’s out there…”

January 26, 2011

I find myself caught between various pieces of writing this week – Most significantly, I’m drafting my first thesis chapter. But there’s also writing up my MSc thesis for publication (complete with a brand new “That’s Funny…” moment), the game for Warpcon (Plug: A Storytelling of Ravens http://www.warpcon.com/?page_id=77), a blog post for Lost Hemisphere, (http://losthemisphere.com/blog) and a post for this blog that is this close to synthesising the ideas that led to it but isn’t quite in a form I would call coherent. Juggling this much all at once is great for freeform ideas, but pretty bad for cogently finishing the blog post I’d intended for here this week.

So instead, I’m going to review Johnathan Hickman’s run on the Fantastic Four.

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of the FF. They, like Superman, are characters who interested me on paper. They seemed like characters that could be the centre of really entertaining and interesting stories. But, like so many superhero characters, I rarely read a story involving them that holds my attention or interest.

But I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about the current writer on the Fantastic Four. As usual, there’s a lot of “The next *insert respected author here* type comments going around – I think these are totally unfair to the actual new talent, but they generally indicate that that person is doing something interesting, so I took a look.

And it’s really quite good. It’s not one of those comics you’ll hand to non-comics readers  but it is a very good superhero comic. More than that, it’s a Good Fantastic Four comic. (While never having seen one before, I’ve seen enough “almost there” ones that I had a good idea of what my idea of a good FF comic would look like…)

Starting with the overarching plot and the week-to-week crazy-dimension-hopping-world-changing events…His style, over the course of the run, reminded me of Kirkman and Steven Moffat, in the sense that he’s not just telling the story at hand, but sowing the seeds of future stories.  He packs a lot of information into each issue. There are time distortions, future-versions-of-characters, alternate dimensions, new civilisations… all FF staples, and they’re all part of the tapestry of what seems like a new corner of the Marvel Universe for the FF to inhabit. With this arc, he has made fertile ground for future writers to draw from, without straightjacketing them into a particular course. He’s drawn on old ideas in FF history, but from that built something quite new.

But really, this arc is all about the characters:

The driving force behind Reed Richards in Hickman’s arc is “Solve Everything.” This was my favourite running theme in the run so far. While the FF brand of Sci-Fi has never been rooted in anything remotely resembling real science, Hickman extracts one core idea from the Sci-Fi part of the FF mythology: That we should be looking to the future with an eye to solving the worlds problems through discovery. The future may look bleak, but Reed believes that the world’s problems can be overcome.  I much prefer this optimistic version of Reed Richards – he’s a superhero (though because of his mind, not his silly stretchy powers… thanks, Stan Lee) and should be more iconic than realistic. I want to believe that he has “the capacity to be both Good and Great.” He wants to be a Better Man, and build a Better World. Idealistic? Yeah. But this is a superhero comic, and I’ve had my fill of grim ‘n’ gritty realism.

I’m also massively fond of his portrayal of Sue Storm. Like so many Superhero wives/girlfriends, she is usually written as the +1. For the first time I read Sue and felt like she was a character in her own right. Previous attempts to make this point seemed to mostly involve her leaving her husband or disagreeing vehemently with him, which seemed… flat, as if the writers felt that conflict was the only way a wife could show strength or independence.  Here though, Sue reads like a character who has chosen Reed as her husband because they actually work as a couple and as parents of the FF family. She’s a wife, a mother, a leader, and a Fucking Superhero, all at the same time.  Notably, like Reed, her moments of heroism are not simply down to superpower-slinging, but because of those core elements of her personality. This will be a recurring thing throughout Hickman’s run – The powers will not be central, but rather the things that make them strong and resilient.

His treatment of the Thing wasn’t anything new – but Ben has always been the most likable member of the group, and seemingly the one that writers have the easiest time putting into that role. But nonetheless, his now-staple flashes of vulnerability are well observed. Again, his powers aren’t a focus. I know the “it’s not the powers that make the superhero, but their character that makes them a hero” bit has been done a lot, but when it’s done well, it’s a joy to read. I like stories that showcase the good things in humanity. That’s what Superhero stories are supposed to be for.

Which brings us to Johnny (Human Torch.) Maybe it’s because I’ve got a new niece, but I enjoyed his “fun uncle” role with the kids. But more than that, I enjoyed how his acts of heroism for most the story were based on him being The One With Awesome Flashy Powers. He’s the show-off, the rash impulsive one. But there is a strong element of him beginning to grow up, to realise that Being Awesome isn’t the same as Being Great. Every character in the arc moves forward and grows. What I like about Hickman’s writing is that he can grow a character without altering them radically  – they’re not changing into something else, but rather becoming more the people they always could be.

Fundamental to the world Hickman was building were the children –  a collection of orphaned “children” of super villains/monsters and their own (Franklyn and Valeria). Reed, after abandoning the rest of the grown up scientific community (because they “fear the future”) turns his focus to educating these exceptionally intelligent children to face the challenges of the future.

I really think it’s worth taking a look at. Superhero stories are supposed to be like this. They’re supposed to be examples of the best things we see in ourselves. And at it’s heart, this run of Fantastic Four is all about building a better world while still managing to be better people when everything else is going to hell, and that’s a Good Story. Last year, Marvel announced “The Heroic Age” and DC announced “Brightest Day.” This was taken as a statement of intent to return to the more “light and brighty” superhero comics of old… But I’d rather have superhero stories like this – Bright and optimistic, but not “light” or simplistic.

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